Based on Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s acclaimed novel, the TNT drama series Monday Mornings, from award-winning producer David E. Kelley, follows the lives of doctors at Chelsea General Hospital in Portland, Oregon, as they push the limits of their abilities and confront their personal and professional failings. The title refers to the hospital’s weekly morbidity and mortality conference, when doctors gather with their peers for a confidential review of complications and errors in patient care. The show stars Ving Rhames, Alfred Molina, Jamie Bamber, Jennifer Finnigan, Bill Irwin, Keong Sim, Sarayu Rao and Emily Swallow.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Keong Sim talked about how he approached the character of Dr. Sung Park, his first meeting with David E. Kelley, that the medical jargon comes easily for him, what these meeting scenes are like to shoot, and what this great ensemble has been like to work with. He also talked about what it was like to be a part of the big-budget action thriller Olympus Has Fallen, directed by Antoine Fuqua and opening in theaters on March 22nd, and how he’d love to do a sitcom, at some point in his career. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
KEONG SIM: It was an audition for pilot season. In January of 2012, when I first got the audition notice, I saw this and I read it and I thought, “Uh oh, this is one of those that could make or break a career.” For my type and age range, it was a pretty rare opportunity. I was like, “Okay, I better actually do a good job on this audition.”
How did you decide the way you wanted to play Dr. Park?
SIM: A lot of it was instinctual. Because I’m Korean as well, I’ve certainly known people who have an accent. My mom still has an accent, and my father had an accent, so it was more in my wheelhouse of life experience. Beyond the pilot episode, I wasn’t quite sure how well-rounded this character was going to be, so I did a lot of filling in the blanks on my own, just as my actor’s research. It made him a little bit more three-dimensional for me. But really, for the audition, it was just about the pilot episode, trying to find a balance between not playing him too broadly or character-y, and not playing it for the comedy. The danger of acting comedy is to play for the funny, as opposed to playing for the reality. So, part of it was just really instinctual because I know this guy, and then there’s the good writing that David E. Kelley does. It’s refreshing to have a character that has a certain amount of cutting through the BS, and that’s afforded by his so-called lack of a grasp on the English vocabulary. It’s a super fun character to play, that’s for sure.
Was the episode of Harry’s Law that you did the first time you had made David E. Kelley, or was the audition for Monday Mornings first?
SIM: The audition was first. After I booked the role for the pilot, it was one of the few times in my career that I was just given a TV role without auditioning, and that was the episode I did of Harry’s Law. It was the “Breaking Points” episode, in the final season. My storyline had to do with the spouse of a reality show star committing suicide, and it was with Nate Corddry’s character was opposing me. But, I didn’t meet David E. Kelley until the day that we did the network table read for the Monday Mornings pilot. That was an interesting experience. Earlier that morning, we had a table read and David E. Kelley, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and our director/producer Bill D’Elia were there, and they said, “Any questions you have, there are no stupid questions, now is the time to ask them.” They just happened to be answering questions with baseball and football metaphors, and I jokingly said, “I don’t get these references. Can you just speak non-metaphorically?,” and people got that it was a joke. And then, later that day, right before the network table read, I was standing by craft services and David E. Kelley came up next to me and said, “Oh, Keong, that thing that you said, that was a joke. I just wanted you to know that I got that it was a joke.” And then, he walked away without making any eye contact, and I didn’t know how to read that. That was the first time I had met him. Since then, we’ve obviously had more interchanges, but that was the first conversation that I had with him.
SIM: Not surprisingly, if the writing is good then it makes our job so much easier. So, it’s a real treat because it’s such good writing. And he and his writers are open to questions and feedback that we have. It’s been a really great experience, so far. Dr. Gupta is also there, and he’s great, too.
Do you find the medical jargon challenging, or does it come easier for you?
SIM: You know, it comes easy for me. I’m not totally sure why. I think, in a different lifetime, I worked as a medical transcriber, part-time. And I was an English lit major, so maybe that’s why that kind of medical jargon doesn’t through me for a loop. I find it kind of easy.
One of the great things about this show, that makes it different from other medical shows, is that these doctors are held accountable for what happens with and to their patients. Was that part of the appeal, for you?
SIM: Oh, yeah, absolutely! A lot of the patients, when they come into our show, don’t always have their story end, at the end of an episode. The next episode could show what happens with a patient coming back. The ramifications, or the things that we’ve done or not done, and how it affects the patients, have more of an episode arc on our show, which is different from most of the past medical dramas.
SIM: I think it’s more the latter. I don’t think he’s arrogant. Dr. Park does have a chip on his shoulder, but it comes more from a sense of his total confidence in his abilities. Also, I think I’m starting to become a bit of the moral compass on the show. It’s interesting. For me, the core of my character is solid integrity, when it comes to what’s right and wrong. It’s a fun character to play because he doesn’t really put up with other people’s perceived lies or bullshit, or whatever, and yet he’s still a human character who certainly has flaws and room to grow. So, it will be fun to see what happens, after this first season.
With an ensemble show, the whole ensemble doesn’t usually get to be together very often, but you guys have the scenes with the staff meetings. What are those big scenes like to shoot?
SIM: It’s super fun. It makes for a long shoot day, when we have the Room 311 scenes, but it’s super fun. People’s personal lives end up getting aired out in this intimate, but public venue. The blurring of professional lives and private lives definitely starts happening, which makes for some interesting stuff. Obviously, even at this higher echelon of medical practice, they’re still human beings, so that gets played in, for sure.
Do you enjoy when your character is the focus, or do you sort of dread that?
SIM: As an actor, the first time I had to do a 311 scene, it was a little nerve-wracking because you actually have an audience, aside from just the camera. I think, “How do I ground myself in this scene? Do I grab the podium? Who do I look at? Do I look at Dr. Hooten, played by Alfred Molina? Do I look at the audience?” It just feels a little bit more like a public forum. With my old theater training, my default is to start projecting, vocally, which isn’t necessary. From an actor’s point of view, it’s an interesting experience, the first time you’re up there. Because we bring up issues that happen or are affecting people, there’s a zeitgeist element to it. So, this forum allows for us to have a point of view about an issue. When we get called into the 311 room, it allows for us to take a specific point of view and argue it, which I think is cool.
Do you think you could ever personally be in a job where your boss would just tear you apart in front of your colleagues, if you did something wrong?
SIM: I don’t know. Hopefully, I won’t find that out on set. I think it’s hard. Any work dynamics end up taking on family dynamics. Sometimes it can be really hard to keep your personal life separate from your work life. We are all a family, albeit a competitive, inter-mingled, messy and muddy family.
What has this ensemble been like to work with?
SIM: I was kind of starstruck, with Bill Irwin, Alfred Molina, Ving Rhames and Jamie Bamber. Bill Irwin is a legendary clown, and he’s done so much stage work and Broadway. Jamie Bamber has done a ton of TV, and Ving Rhames has don’t a ton of film stuff. Emily Swallow is a New York actress, and Sarayu Rao has done a ton of theater. So, I was excited and felt a little intimidated by the cast. But, once we got into doing the scenes and I got to see them work, and I saw that they, too, can forget lines, I realized that they’re human and it’s not so different. It’s been such an amazing experience, and we’ve had such great guest stars. We had Hal Holbrook in one of the episodes. It’s just been a real treat. I’ve been acting for a long time, so to get to act with these actors, it’s really about the work. It’s really been lovely, so far.
Which have been the most fun character relationships to play?
SIM: It’s slowly developing. The first thing that sticks out in my mind is Dr. Hooten, who’s the big boss that we’re all accountable to. My character really has a chip on his shoulder with Jamie Bamber’s character. Dr. Park recognizes that Dr. Wilson is his equal, as a neurosurgeon, but he’s also good looking and isn’t deficient in social graces and has a command of the language. I feel a certain competitiveness with him, although I also respect him. With Dr. Hooten, he’s the father that you want to please and get approval from, but that’s more of an actor thought than something written into the character. I have a little bit of interaction with Ving’s character, who’s an ex-NFL football player that becomes this amazing trauma surgeon. It will be interesting to see what happens in the second season, if and when that happens. We’ve also introduced my family – my wife and three young kids – briefly, so getting to play that will be fun, too. Outside of the series regular characters, there’s an episode where I had to play a Bach aria duet with a concert-level violinist. I literally had a week and change, from never having picked up the violin, to learn how to play a Bach aria duet at the concert level, with a violinist who was really good. That was really challenging and very stressful, but a lot of fun. That was really cool. In terms of cliches, it’s the classic Asian American instrument to pick up, and I actually found myself really enjoying the quality of the violin.
SIM: I was so starstruck. Melissa Leo took care of me. There was a lot of improvising going on, on that film, and I didn’t know that. That’s just the environment that was allowed. I have so many stories from that. There was a scene with the President (Aaron Eckhart) and Antoine Fuqua, the director, said, “What would you guys say to each other, right now? I need you guys to think about it, and I need that to happen.” So, Melissa Leo said, “Give them a few minutes. You’ve got to give them time.” She pulled me aside and said, “Keong, the way you and Aaron, as actors, are thinking about what your dialogue is going to be, it’s going to be two seconds in the film. So, think about what you’re going to say, but how your body language is right now is the money.” I don’t know what made it into the cut, but it was cool that Melissa Leo took care of us like that. And I met Morgan Freeman, which is unbelievable. Eckhart was great. Antoine Fuqua was just so lovely. I had a scene with Dylan McDermott that got cut, that led to an ear injury. It wasn’t his fault, and that’s a whole other story, but he was amazing. He came up with his own monologue to justify his character’s choices. I don’t know if that made the cut, but it certainly wasn’t in the script. So, it was amazing seeing a big-budget, star-studded Hollywood film and how much improvising was allowed. I’m curious to see how much will eventually make it or not make it.
Who are you playing in the film?
SIM: I pay the South Korean foreign minister (Minister Lee Tae-Woo), and I come to the White House with my entourage because there are increasing tensions with North Korea, kind of like what’s going on now. I’m there to speak to the President, played by Aaron Eckhart. And then, all of the proverbial shit hits the fan.
SIM: You know, I would love to do a sitcom. I got a chance to do an episode of Mike & Molly (called “Peggy Goes to Branson”), and it was with legendary director James Burrows, who directed a ton of Cheers episodes. So, I was on that set and it seemed like an incredibly happy place to work. I also just recently saw the Judd Apatow film, This is 40. Since Freaks and Geeks, I’ve loved Judd Apatow and what he does, and I would love to be in a Judd Apatow film. And I’ve love to foster other projects behind the camera, with people that I’d love to work with. I tried to get a job as a staff writer on The Daily Show. I would love to be on The Daily Show. If I could ever get to the point where I could host Saturday Night Live, that would be an amazing experience. I would love to be able to go up to the podium and have my mom and my family in the audience and publicly give thanks, if I’m ever lucky enough to be in that position. Those are all things that may or may not ever happen. Hopefully, this will be a nice stepping stone for me to actualize some of these dreams. I just want to work with people and on projects that are exciting and interesting. Hopefully, I’ll have the longevity in my career to do that.
Monday Mornings airs on Monday nights on TNT.